Participant observation

Participant observation

Participant observation is a set of research strategies which aim to gain a close and intimate familiarity with a given group of individuals (such as a religious, occupational, or subcultural group, or a particular community) and their practices through an intensive involvement with people in their natural environment, often though not always over an extended period of time. The method originated in field work of social anthropologists, especially Bronisław Malinowski and his students in Britain, the students of Franz Boas in the US, and in the urban research of the Chicago School of sociology. It is similar to ethnography but often involves a shorter time in the field.

Method and Practice

Such research usually involves a range of methods: informal interviews, direct observation, participation in the life of the group, collective discussions, analyses of personal documents produced within the group, self-analysis, and life-histories. Although the method is generally characterized as qualitative research, it can (and often does) include quantitative dimensions. Participant observation is usually undertaken over an extended period of time, ranging from several months to many years. An extended research time period means that the researcher will be able to obtain more detailed and accurate information about the people he/she is studying. Observable details (like daily time allotment) and more hidden details (like taboo behavior) are more easily observed and understandable over a longer period of time. A strength of observation and interaction over long periods of time is that researchers can discover discrepancies between what participants say -- and often believe -- should happen (the formal system) and what actually does happen, or between different aspects of the formal system; in contrast, a one-time survey of people's answers to a set of questions might be quite consistent, but is less likely to show conflicts between different aspects of the social system or between conscious representations and behavior.DeWalt, K. M., DeWalt, B. R., & Wayland, C. B. (1998). "Participant observation." In H. R. Bernard (Ed.), "Handbook of methods in cultural anthropology." Pp: 259-299. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.]

History and Development

Participant observation has its roots in anthropology and its used as a methodology can be attributed to Abū Rayhān Bīrūnī (973-1048), a Persian anthropologist who carried out extensive, personal investigations of the peoples, customs and religions of the Indian subcontinent. Like modern anthropologists, he engaged in extensive participant observation with a given group of people, learnt their language and studied their primary texts, and presented his findings with objectivity and neutrality using cross-cultural comparisons.Akbar S. Ahmed (1984), "Al-Beruni: The First Anthropologist", "RAIN" 60: 9-10]

Participant observation was used extensively by Frank Hamilton Cushing in his study of the Zuni Indians in the later part of the nineteenth century, followed by the studies of non-Western societies by people such as Bronislaw Malinowski, [Malinowski, Bronislaw (1929) "The sexual life of savages in north-western Melanesia: an ethnographic account of courtship, marriage and family life among the natives of the Trobriand Islands, British New Guinea". New York: Halcyon House.] Edward Evans-Pritchard, [Evans-Pritchard, E. E. (1940) "The Nuer, a description of the modes livelihood and political institutions of a Nilotic people". Oxford: Clarendon Press.] and Margaret Mead [Mead, Margaret (1928) "Coming of age in Samoa: a psychological study of primitive youth for Western civilisation". New York: William Morrow & Co.] in the first half of the twentieth century. It emerged as the principal approach to ethnographic research by anthropologists and relied on the cultivation of personal relationships with local informants as a way of learning about a culture, involving both observing and participating in the social life of a group. By living with the cultures they studied, these researchers were able to formulate first hand accounts of their lives and gain novel insights. This same method of study has also been applied to groups within Western society, and is especially successful in the study of sub-cultures or groups sharing a strong sense of identity, where only by taking part might the observer truly get access to the lives of those being studied.Since the 1980s, some anthropologists and other social scientists have questioned the degree to which participant observation can give veridical insight into the minds of other people. [Geertz, Clifford (1984) "From the Native’s Point of View: on the nature of anthropological understanding," in "Culture Theory: essays on mind, self, and emotion". Edited by R. A. Shweder and R. LeVine, pp. 123-136. New York: Cambridge University Press.] [Rosaldo, Renato (1986) "From the door of his tent: the fieldworker and the inquisitor," in "Writing culture: the poetics and politics of ethnography". Edited by J. Clifford and G. E. Marcus. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.] At the same time, a more formalized qualitative research program known as grounded theory, initiated by Glaser and Strauss, [Glaser, Barney G., and Anselm L. Strauss (1967) "The Discovery of Grounded Theory: strategies for qualitative research". Chicago: Aldine.] began gaining currency within American sociology and related fields such as public health. In response to these challenges, some ethnographers have refined their methods, either making them more amenable to formal hypothesis-testing and replicability, or framing their interpretations within a more carefully considered epistemology.

Variations and Related Methods

A variant of participant observation is observing participation, described by Marek M. Kaminski, who explored prison subculture being a political prisoner in communist Poland in 1985. [Marek M. Kaminski. 2004. "Games Prisoners Play". Princeton University Press. ISBN 0-691-11721-7] "Observing" or "observant" participation has also been used to describe fieldwork in sexual minority subcultures by anthropologists and sociologists who are themselves lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender; the different phrasing is meant to highlight the way in which their partial or full membership in the community/subculture that they are researching both allows a different sort of access to the community and also shapes their perceptions in ways different from a full outsider. [Bolton, Ralph. (1995). "Tricks, friends and lovers: Erotic encounters in the field." In D. Kulick & M. Wilson (Eds.), "Taboo" Pp: 140 - 167. London: Routledge.] This is similar to considerations by anthropologists such as Lila Abu-Lughod on "halfie anthropology", or fieldwork by bicultural anthropologists on a culture to which they partially belong. [Abu‐Lughod, Lila (1988). "Fieldwork of a dutiful daughter." In S. Altorki & C. Fawzi El-Solh (Eds.), "Arab women in the field: Studying your own society". Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.] The sociological methods known as grounded theory (Glazer and Strauss) overlap significantly with the more formalized versions of participant observation.

ee also

* Creative participation
* Fieldwork
* Participatory Action Research
* Qualitative research
* Educational psychology
* Grounded theory
* Person-centered ethnography
* Clinical Ethnography
* Naturalistic observation
* Unobtrusive measures
* Ethnobotany


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  • Participant observation — participant observation …   Dictionary of sociology

  • participant observation — A major research strategy which aims to gain a close and intimate familiarity with a given area of study (such as a religious, occupational, or deviant group) through an intensive involvement with people in their natural environment. The method… …   Dictionary of sociology

  • participant observation — a technique of field research, used in anthropology and sociology, by which an investigator (participant observer) studies the life of a group by sharing in its activities. [1930 35] * * * …   Universalium

  • participant observation — noun : a research technique in anthropology and sociology characterized by the effort of an investigator to gain entrance into and social acceptance by a foreign culture or alien group so as better to attain a comprehensive understanding of the… …   Useful english dictionary

  • overt participant observation — Participant observation carried out with the agreement of the subjects being studied. This agreement may be tacit or formally expressed. In the latter case, the sociologist makes it clear that social science research is being undertaken, and the… …   Dictionary of sociology

  • Covert participant observation — is a method in social science research. Participant observation involves a researcher joining the group he or she is studying, and in the case of covert observation, the researcher s status is not made known to the group. Participant observation… …   Wikipedia

  • non-participant observation — A research technique whereby the researcher watches the subjects of his or her study, with their knowledge, but without taking an active part in the situation under scrutiny. This approach is sometimes criticized on the grounds that the very fact …   Dictionary of sociology

  • covert participant observation — covert observation …   Dictionary of sociology

  • Participant — observation …   Dictionary of sociology

  • observation — See covert observation ; non participant observation ; overt participant observation ; participant observation …   Dictionary of sociology

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